Why a Marauding Marquess is Best – Tammy Andresen

Raithe, the Baron of Balstead, watched as his last two victims walked through the door. Good. They were all here. He’d carefully chosen this cast of characters, his soon-to-be house guests. He needed them for a very particular purpose, though he had no intention of telling them what that purpose was. This was a situation where it was best to lie. He found many situations were that way. Not all of them, of course. But here, at his gentlemen’s club, where drinking and gambling were the primary activities, it was all about the bluff. Just to his right sat three friends. Lord Dashlane, Lord Crestwood and Lord Craven. They were his first three potential…guests. Craven was one of the few men in England that actually frightened him a bit. Quiet and sullen, he was also tall and well-muscled. He looked quick as a snake and equally as deadly.

Then there was Dashlane, blond with a flashing smile, he was a charmer for sure. Crestwood was dark-haired and handsome. All three liked their fair share of women and liquor but he’d seen them defend a group of harlots that another band of ruffians had attempted to rob and that put these gents on his list. “Are you going to tell us what this is about?” Dashlane asked, bringing his whisky to his lips. “In a minute,” he answered, holding up a finger. A wide range of guests crowded the club tonight, seats limited, which worked for him. His last two players had entered the club but hadn’t picked him out the crowd yet. The Duke of Rathmore made his way through the mash of people and stopped directly in front of Raithe. Rathmore turned to his cousin and best friend, Lord Hartwell. “Don’t you love the smell of leather, cigars, and good whisky?” Hartwell rolled his eyes.

“I prefer brandy and thank goodness we missed the speaker,” he quietly announced as he brushed back his rich brown hair. “I’ve no appetite for politics today.” Rathmore raised his brow. “What’s gotten into you?” “Charlie.” Hartwell grimaced, his mouth hardening into a thin line. Raithe’s insides tightened. Charlie was short for Charlotte, Lady Charlotte Rainsville. She was Rathmore’s cousin and Hartwell’s sister. As vivacious as she was beautiful, she’d come out the season before. Fearless and outspoken, many had said she should have been born a man.

Not that her strong personality stopped her from garnering male attention. In fact, Charlie had been the premiere debutante last season with droves of men following her about but she’d yet to choose a husband. Raithe had not been one of those men. He stayed away from respectable girls as a general rule and Charlie in particular. Something about her beauty made her difficult to even look at. A man might lose his head and he couldn’t afford to do that now. “Are you worried for the upcoming season? I know you were beating men off with sticks and clubs.” Rathmore chuckled. Hartwell’s grimace turned into a full-on spasm. “Worried doesn’t begin to cover how I feel.

And sticks and clubs were the least of the needed weapons. I had two incidents that involved a sword and one that required a pistol.” Chase clapped his cousin on the back. “I’ll help you.” Hartwell gave him a light shove. “You said that last year too. But we both know you’re too busy to help me keep Charlie out of trouble.” “Busy doing what?” Raithe asked, a light grin playing at his lips. He knew full well what sorts of illicit pastimes the duke engaged in that kept him occupied. Both men turned to look at him.

Hartwell appeared leery while Rathmore crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.” “I didn’t sneak.” His grin broadened. “I’ve been sitting here the entire time. Isn’t that right, Dashlane?” “Are they who we’re waiting for? Can we get on with it then?” Dashlane cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got a lovely brunette waiting for my attention.” Rathmore frowned at the other fellow. “Must you be so indiscrete about your indiscretions?” Crestwood quirked a brow. “How else should a man be? We are young, single, titled.

Seems perfect to me.” “It’s tawdry. It’s one thing to participate in such behavior but another to speak so openly about it.” Rathmore frowned and Raithe realized he should get this conversation moving before the men squabbled. That could come later. “Gentlemen,” he started, clearing his throat. “I’m having a party at the end of next week. You are the premier guests on the list.” Crestwood slapped the table, his attitude completely changing. “Now we’re getting somewhere.

” Craven continued to grimace; his face a complete mask. “What sort of party?” “The sort men of your kind would like.” He winked. Raithe had a particular sort of reputation for having parties filled with women and liquor. That wasn’t what this was going to be and so he wouldn’t outwardly promise such delights. It would give him plausible deniability later. Rathmore dropped his arms to his sides. “Next week? I couldn’t possibly.” Raithe tried not to frown. The duke, once a notorious rake, had hardly been seen at the gaming hells or at parties of ill repute.

Coupled with his comments to Crestwood, that made him the most important candidate of them all. Hartwell stepped forward. “We’re headed to the coast to check in on some of our properties.” Excellent. He tightened his grip around his glass. “Then you’ll be close to my home. Surely, you can spend a few days with us.” Hartwell shook his head. “My sister will be travelling with me. I seriously doubt she is suited to one of your parties.

” Raithe didn’t respond. This gathering would be perfectly appropriate for such a lady, but he wasn’t about to tell them all of that. Besides, Charlie was the last woman he wanted in his house, under his roof, near his bed. “That doesn’t mean Rathmore can’t attend. For a few days at least.” He leaned forward. “Tell me you’re not craving something different.” He saw the flicker of indecision in the other man’s eyes. Victory roared in his blood. “Count me in,” Crestwood crowed.

“What about you, Dashlane?” Dashlane took a sip of his drink. “Why not? I could use a change of pace. Craven?” The third man frowned. “I suppose.” Raithe didn’t care if Craven attended or not. In fact, he’d prefer he didn’t but the three were often together making Craven a necessary evil. “Rathmore?” “I’ll think on it.” Rathmore shrugged, staring at the far wall. “I’ll attend,” another voice called from the corner. Raithe turned, his jaw clenching when he’d seen who spoke.

His Grace, the Duke of Danesbury sat, partially obscured by shadow. The man was rarely seen out, his face having been scarred on one side from some accident or another. Raithe’s eyes widened to see the man here on such a busy night. “Your Grace?” he asked. Strictly speaking the man was not invited but as a duke, he’d be difficult to refuse. “I’ve heard of your parties, Balstead. I’ll come if you’ll have me.” Raithe swore softly under his breath. This was not one of the carefully chosen men. He didn’t know what sort of man Danesbury was and didn’t wish to find out.

“Of course, Your Grace.” Raithe sat back in his chair. He had five men after all. Not the five he’d originally set out to invite but still… that ought to give Cassandra some choices… Chapter One Dane Summerset, The Marquess of Hartwell, sat in the carriage staring out at the ocean views as his sister chattered incessantly. “A wedding! It’s so exciting, isn’t it?” He grimaced, not looking at Charlie. Her proper name was Lady Charlotte Summerset, but no one called her by her given name. Anyone familiar enough to know her, referred to her just as Charlie. “Hardly.” She clucked her tongue, swatting at his arm. “Our dearest cousin is getting married.

We should be happy for him.” She fluffed out her skirts. “I’ve missed nearly the entire season and I am still thrilled.” Dane turned to his sister. “There are worse things in life than missing a season.” He gave her a long stare to emphasize his point. “For example, Rathmore left our company a week ago a determined bachelor.” He did not add that the duke had been heading to a house party filled with the sort of sinful delights he hoped Charlie never understood. “Now, he’s engaged to a completely unknown girl, who isn’t even titled. If you ask me, something dreadful has happened.

” And he had every intention of figuring out what that was. Charlie sighed, the sort that made his brow draw together. The sigh spoke volumes, accusing him of being absurd. He frowned. How did she not see that she was the one being ridiculous? “Maybe they fell in love,” she said, pressing her fingers to her cheeks as she stared dreamily out the window. He scoffed at her statement. “Or perhaps she trapped him with some claim.” The idea made him shift a bit in seat. Rathmore was a rake to be certain but he usually kept his activities to women who understood the bargain. Dane didn’t think he would have knowingly compromised an innocent lady.

If he had, there was no helping him. But, if this girl had made some sort of false charge, then, there might be something Dane could do. He had no idea what, but his first objective was just to understand the situation. His second was to help his cousin out of whatever bind he’d landed himself in. Since they’d been children, Dane had always had the clearer head. Rathmore, as a duke, had the world at his fingertips and yet, his heart often allowed emotion to sway his decisions. He’d needed Dane to use reason and judgment to help him out of several scrapes, and this one was likely no exception. “You’re always so cynical.” Charlie tapped her fan on his knee. He crossed his arms staring at his sister.

“Or perhaps I am intelligent. Let’s play a game…” Charlie wrinkled her nose. “Your games are never fun.” He ignored his sister’s barb. “Which is more likely?” He sensed that his sister was also anxious to find love, though she’d had plenty of opportunity the previous season. She was assuredly painting Rathmore’s situation with her own wishes. “That Rathmore, a young, handsome, eligible duke had a sudden and immediate change of heart, where a determined bachelor has suddenly decided to marry, after meeting a woman or—” He held up a finger. “That a lady, upon meeting the young, handsome, eligible duke, decided that he was excellent husband material and set a quick and effective trap.” Charlie huffed, leaning back in her seat, her arms crossing in a mirror image of his. “While I must admit, the timeline is very quick—” “Precisely,” he responded, straightening his shoulders triumphantly.

“I won’t go into this meeting with such doubts.” She leaned closer, her eyes narrowing as she gave him a long stare. “This woman, whoever she is, is going to be our family, Dane. Do not make a bad first impression when we see our cousin’s fiancée.” He didn’t reply as he glared back at his sister. Despite Charlie’s warning, he knew she was wrong. This woman wouldn’t be his family if he had anything to say about it. He’d pulled Rathmore out of more than one romantic scrape and he’d have to do so again this time. Their parents had died on a Channel crossing ten years prior. Since then, they’d been each other’s family and Dane would risk his life for his cousin.

Chase Rathmore was his brother at heart and he’d do almost anything for him. Certainly, he’d investigate one marriage-minded miss. His thoughts drifted back to a few years earlier when Rathmore had taken a mistress. The woman had declared herself enceinte and convinced Rathmore to marry her. Dane had stepped in and required Rathmore to wait three months. Within two weeks the woman had bled. She’d been forced to admit she’d lied about being with child. If Chase hadn’t heeded his warning, he’d have been married before he’d discovered the truth. Dane would see his cousin safe again this time. The carriage pulled into a drive and Dane shifted his gaze from the lovely ocean scene to the large stone house that stood high on a hill.

Well, he had to admit one fact: the home of the Moorish family was lovely. Rows of balconies peeked out from thick ivy and beautifully maintained gardens. The sweeping steps drew visitors toward the grand front door. As they made their way up the drive, a crowd of people stood in a line to greet them. As he drew near, he recognized several of the men. His cousin, of course, wearing a bright grin. But near him were two other lords he recognized from London. The Earl of Crestwood and the Baron of Craven. What in the bloody bullocks was happening here? He knew both the men were complete rogues who’d also been bound for Balstead’s party. Why were they here? The carriage rolled to a stop and the footman snapped open the door.

He climbed out, handing Charlie down. “Welcome to Moorish Manor.” An elderly man stepped forward, sweeping his arms wide. Dane had to confess that he was a likable sort with kind eyes behind his spectacles. If he were honest, the man didn’t look like a conspirator, but then again, looks could be deceiving. The woman Dane had nearly married had looked and acted completely innocent but it had turned out that act had been the appropriate word to describe her. Their entire relationship had been a complete fiction. Dane gave a short bow, his fists clenching at his sides. Rathmore stepped forward. “May I present my cousin, the Marquess of Hartwell, and his sister, Lady Charlotte Summerset.

” “A pleasure.” Mr. Moorish swept into deep bow. “I am honored to have you at my home. These are my daughters.” The man gestured toward the crowd of women. “Please come inside where you’ll be more comfortable. The sun is growing quite warm already, is it not?” Charlie stepped forward. “The sunshine feels wonderful to me, but I am excited to see your home. Thank you so much for hosting us.

What a pleasure.” Dane tried not to roll his eyes. The older man might look kind but for all Dane knew he was the very person who’d actually trapped his cousin. He refused to waver, knowing he’d have to keep his wits about him. It was time for Dane to start getting some answers. * * * Juliet stared at the marquess who’d arrived at her door and pursed her lips. She didn’t like him. He was handsome enough with his sandy hair and chocolate brown eyes. And he had the sort of broad shoulders that might make another girl swoon but his face was set in stern, serious lines. His mouth was marked with a slight frown and his eyes crinkled in disapproval as he stared down the line of her family.

Judgment rolled off him in waves and her own skin bristled in response. How dare he make assumptions about the people she loved? The group started for the front door. Her sister, Adrianna, took the arm of her fiancé, the Earl of Crestwood, while Bianca paired off with her soon-to-be husband, the Baron of Craven. Juliet tried not to sigh as her only other single sister, Cordelia, stepped up next to her. “The marquess is handsome,” Cordelia whispered, leaning close to Juliet’s ear. Juliet scowled as she looked ahead. Ophelia had linked her arm with Lady Charlotte’s and they walked ahead while Rathmore spoke with his cousin, Hartwell. The marquess’s profile was in her view and his frown grew more pronounced, slicing his hand through the air. “He is handsome,” she said, looking for an excuse to eavesdrop. “Let’s move closer.

” In truth, she didn’t give a fig about his looks, but she did care to hear what he might be saying. Juliet had worked rather hard to throw Ophelia and Rathmore together and she fancied herself a bit of a matchmaker. Was the annoying marquess attempting to undo her hard work? That would explain all the contempt he displayed.

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